Such a long legacy: on Indira Gandhi


The term populism has acquired considerable currency these days, and is widely used to describe a distinctive mode of politics. Though populist leaders are democratically elected, they betray scant respect for the procedures and institutions of democracy, civil liberties, and dissent. Appearing like a veritable messiah onto the stage of politics, they attack elitism, establishment politics, and corruption. Disdaining the rules of constitutional democracy, they prefer to concentrate power in their own person, and directly speak to and for an inchoate entity called the people. Populism neatly captures the political style of Donald Trump in the U.S, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Narendra Modi of India. These leaders have attracted attention, but their populist politics can prove dangerous for democracy.

Standing up to ‘big men’

Consider Indira Gandhi, whose birth centenary it is on Sunday. She single-handedly wrote and enacted the script of populism in India, amidst a struggle for the control of the Congress party. Jawaharlal Nehru had steered the party to impressive victories in the first three elections to Parliament after Independence. This gave the government an edge over the party leadership. Nehru’s death in 1964 restored power to the ‘big men’ in the Congress. They were more than familiar with political strategies, and were adept at manoeuvring their way through the thickets of politics.


They decided to put Indira Gandhi, who had acquired a fair deal of popularity, in her place. Her biographers tell us that she was unbearably patronised by the ‘Syndicate’ peopled by powerful Congressmen — Atulya Ghosh, K. Kamaraj, S.K. Patil, N. Sanjiva Reddy, S. Nijalingappa and Biju Patnaik. As a member of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet, Mrs. Gandhi was handed the inconsequential Information and Broadcasting Ministry, was heckled in Parliament and was disparagingly referred to as a ‘goongi gudiya’ (dumb doll) by Ram Manohar Lohia.

Yet, when Shastri passed away the Congress, wracked by political rivalries, decided that Mrs. Gandhi should be the next Prime Minister. She was sworn in as the first woman Prime Minister of India on January 24, 1966. From the late 1960s to her assassination in 1984, the same woman who had been regularly belittled by her male colleagues dominated the party as well as the country. And these ‘big men’ who had assumed that they would control power in a government headed by a mere woman vanished into the mists of time.

Turning point in 1967

The story of Prime Minister Gandhi’s ascent in politics begins in the 1967 elections, when she campaigned for the party across the country. She travelled thousands of kilometres in an open jeep, addressed crowds, and secured acclaim. She quickly grasped that older power equations in rural India had given way to palpable tensions between the landed and the landless. Displaying considerable political acumen, and a great sense of timing, Mrs. Gandhi positioned herself firmly for the poor — garib — the new politically significant factor in Indian politics. Appealing directly to this section of Indians, and deploying dexterously the slogan ‘garibi hatao’ (remove poverty), she assiduously forged and nurtured a national constituency over the heads of regional leaders. After Mahatma Gandhi it was Indira Gandhi who was seen as the saviour of the poor, and over time as ‘Mother India.’


Following distinctively pro-poor policies, she nationalised 14 commercial banks in 1969, and abolished the privy purses of the erstwhile royals. In the process, she exposed the pro-rich stand of existing leaders, their incompetence and their advancing age that pre-empted any radical move. Shortly thereafter the party split, and Mrs. Gandhi became the undisputed leader of the dominant wing of the party. In retrospect, ‘garibi hatao’ rhetoric appears unpretentious and simple. But used for the first time in Indian politics to directly address the concerns of the poor, it contributed to the consolidation of authority. In the 1971 elections, the Congress came back to power with an overwhelming majority. And Mrs. Gandhi secured the sort of legitimacy her father had enjoyed.

Mrs. Gandhi was adept at emotionally mobilising the masses. The electoral successes of her party gave her the authority to select which leader she catapulted into, or dismissed from, ministerial posts. Under her leadership, India secured food self-sufficiency, and made gigantic strides in developing nuclear and space technology. The Indian Army won a decisive victory over Pakistan in 1971, and opposition leaders began to hail her as Durga, the vanquisher of all evil.

Conversely her disdain for procedures and parliamentary proprieties led to the rapid decline of democratic institutions. Prime Minister Gandhi changed the rules of Indian politics by calling for a committed judiciary and a committed bureaucracy. Above all, she changed the Congress party. As her stature rose in the eyes of Indians, her party declined dramatically. The same Congress that had specialised in addressing, negotiating, and resolving demands of different groups within the framework of its organisation became captive to the leader. This was at a time when popular expectations of parties and of the government had escalated.


By the late 1960s, disgruntlement had coalesced rapidly under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan. Mrs. Gandhi imposed an internal emergency from 1975 to 1977 in response. Civil liberties were suspended, opposition leaders were jailed, petty rulings censored films, with songs of Kishore Kumar banned from All India Radio. The government tried to legitimise the Emergency by issuing a 20-point programme for economic and social reform. This did not work. The Emergency regime was voted out in the 1977 elections.

A brave woman

The saga of Indira Gandhi tells us of a woman brave enough to breach ramparts fortified by the old elite, establish her own brand of politics based on a direct and unmediated relationship with the electorate, succeed in banishing the very men who had at one time treated her patronisingly and shabbily, and become a loved Prime Minister. Her politics epitomised populism. However, her efforts to marginalise opponents and party colleagues bred a bitter harvest. By the mid-1970s she had become suspicious of everyone, and could rely on no one except her son Sanjay. The consequences were disastrous: the imposition of the Emergency that pulverised political life in the country. Mrs. Gandhi was voted back in 1980 but she seemed to have lost her ability to judge the political moment, and mislaid her famed acumen. The decision to storm the Golden Temple was a historic blunder. The Prime Minister who moved the hearts and minds of millions would die at the hands of her own guards in 1984.

She left behind a shaky legacy, on the one hand personalisation of power and on the other diminished institutional capacity. The results were painfully evident in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. After her death, bloodthirsty crowds ran amuck to kill and maim innocent citizens of India. The country paid heavily for political populism in the form of personalised power, neglect of institutional propriety, disdain for procedures that contain the otherwise unabashed exercise of power, and the reduction of ministerial colleagues to courtiers. Have we learnt anything from this history of the rise and fall of one of the most admired leaders of Indian politics? Or are we going to let the past repeat itself again and again and again, in the fascination for populist politics. For it is not the populist leader, but the country which has to pay the wages of populism.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 1:06:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/such-a-long-legacy/article20539718.ece

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